The three-day China Shanghai International Children’s Book Fair (CCBF), which wrapped up on November 19, marked the fifth edition of what is now widely acknowledged as the biggest event dedicated to children’s content in Asia. Livres Canada Books, which showcased 10 publishing companies, exhibited for the first time, as did Bonnier (Sweden), Penguin Random House (U.S.), and Tohan (Japan). In total, approximately 350 exhibitors inhabited the 25,000-square-meter hall, of which one-third was devoted to overseas publishers. That was a significant increase from about 300 exhibitors in 2016.

In all, there were 12 conference sessions, 25 workshops, and more than 100 events, ranging from book signings to readings, held at the fair. Conference sessions spanned from the basic (“How to Create a Good Picture Book”) to the practical (“How to Sell Copyright to Western Publishers Today”), and boasted speakers such as author-illustrators Cao Wenxuan, Taro Gomi, K.T. Hao, Aleksandra Mizielinska, and Daniel Mizielinski, and many directors, past and present, of the International Board on Books for Young People.

For a trial program that began in 2013, CCBF’s success is very much about being the right event in the right place at the right time. The vast Chinese market—370 million children below the age of 18 with the addition of an estimated three million annually through its two-child policy—and sophisticated young parents (with a propensity to spend their disposable income on books for their kids) remains very much an uncharted territory with unique opportunities and ever-evolving demands.

According to OpenBook, a Beijing-based clearinghouse for publishing statistics in China, sales of children’s books in 2016 accounted for 23.5% of China’s total retail book market, which stands at CNY 70.1 billion ($10.2 billion). The children’s book segment grew 28.8% in 2016, the report said, and there is no sign of slowing down, if the busy CCBF is any indicator.

Exhibitors, both new and seasoned, were simultaneously challenged by unique trends and encouraged by expanding sales. Few left the fair without forming insights and deeper understanding of the Chinese children’s book market.

According to David McMillan, group export senior sales manager at Walker Books, imports of original English editions are growing fast. “The general push to learn English by young parents is driving imports. Category-wise, educational titles remain as popular as ever. There is also increased demand for titles targeted at older age groups, such as six to nine. So while vocabulary titles remain popular, those on word building, for instance, are getting more attention from parents. At the same time, I am seeing the imported book market broadening to include math and science books, and this represents new opportunities for us. Award-winners, as expected, attract a lot of attention here.” Carson Ellis’s Du Iz Tak, one of the three winners of the 2017 Chen Bochui Award in the Best International Children’s Picture Book category, created a lot of buzz for Candlewick Press/Walker Books at the fair.

With around 20 titles sold to China since the previous CCBF, publisher Luca Sassi of Italian house Sassi Editore was feeling encouraged about the fair and the overall Chinese children’s book industry. “For this second outing, our booth and book-plus products are receiving more attention. Book-with-puzzle, which was ignored by this market last year, is now being considered viable.” Titles such as the book-and-3D-model— Build an Airplane 3D and Build a Locomotive 3D from Sassi Science’s Travel, Learn Explore series—were popular with booth visitors. The fair itself, Sassi remarked, “is a well-organized event with an interesting and lively mix of children’s activities, events, meetings, and forums.”

Aby Mann, owner of U.K.-based Aby Books, who represents two companies (i-Read and Milly Flynn), had high hopes of getting eight deals out of 18 scheduled meetings at her second CCBF. “I am seeing a lot of interest in reading materials, especially graded readers, and math and science books. As expected, this market wants books with some educational value, which means that Beautiful Ballerinas, for instance, was totally disregarded for offering no such tangible value.” Booth visitors and potential partners, said Mann, were also drawn to titles on English-language learning such as 100 Animals and carousel board books such as My Very First Animals Book.

The presence of several EdTech companies at the fair—VIPKid and DadaABC, for instance—“reflects the growing interest in this sector, especially for English-language learning,” said Michael Davis, managing director (Asia) at Highlights. “These are primarily young companies that are racing to leverage technology to build new curriculum offerings to reach different segments of the Chinese market.” From Davis’s perspective, Highlights is well-positioned with a wide range of authentic stories optimized for digital platforms. “Such products will allow us to offer a branded solution for these applications as well as for traditional publishers seeking print or print-digital bundled products. The opportunities out there are immense.”

First-time exhibitors and visitors were impressed with the fair, and thrilled by the opportunity to meet with Chinese publishers coming from different parts of the vast country. Managing director David Henderson of U.K.-based Top That deemed his first CCBF visit a success. “Having the chance to visit our Chinese partners’ stands in their own country is different from visiting their booths at Bologna,” he said. “And seeing our titles at their booths is such a great experience.” Top That’s sales to China in the past year—since its first CCBF, in fact—have grown around 20%. “Our wide-ranging publishing program means that we can cater to varying demands, from educational titles to activity books as well as different illustration or artwork styles.” Henderson and his team had about 40 meetings scheduled, but said that “it is all about follow-ups, and about uncovering new ways to do business in China.”

Over at Italian publisher ELI, its reputation is already established by the many ELT titles sold to major players such as Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press and Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press. “But our children’s products are new to this market,” said Vittorio D’Aversa, international marketing and promotion manager, and CCBF first-timer. “Since Chinese publishers prefer award-winners and series with recurring characters, our Lilliput series [2017 winner of Italy’s Andersen Prize for best fiction] is a great fit.” D’Aversa finds the Chinese publishing industry, with its different types of publishers (regional- and subject-based, for instance) and varying levels of competency and exposure in collaborating with overseas publishers, an interesting world. “This is just like Chinese boxes—a set of nested boxes of graduated sizes—that require patience, trust, and relationship-building to discover and unravel.”

CCBF, said Nick Ackland, managing director of U.K.-based I Am a Bookworm, “is very different from other fairs, especially those in Europe, in that people are comfortable to wander to your booth and check out your titles. There is an intent to buy and to have a conversation about our books and company.” Ackland recently sold his first title to China through a rights agency. The contract is for three series—Baby Playbook, Busy Baby, and Slide and Find—and a combined print run of 140,000 copies. “As a small and young six-year-old company, the success of our first sale has given us the confidence to further explore this new market,” he said, “and I am using this first CCBF visit to meet people and experience the market for myself. I came with zero expectations and I am focused on making my own conclusions, which at present, are positive.”

CCBF will return in mid-November next year; the exact dates have not yet been announced.

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